This is how you should vote

All the things you should consider as you vote in #elxn42

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As the longest election in our lifetimes draws to a close, Canadians are preparing to cast their ballot on Monday. And while all eligible Canadians have an equal right to vote, not all votes may be cast equally.

How can you best ensure that your vote is reflective of the candidate, leader, or party best suited to your preferences? It may be trickier than you think. This election has been full of misinformation, spin, confusion, and subtle cues nudging voters in all directions. Here are some ways to think about how you can maximize your chances of making a good decision on October 19th.

How should you vote? Wait. Hold the angry tweets and e-mails. Let me clarify. I don’t mean to discuss which candidate you should vote for. While I do care who you vote for, I care far more how you vote. Let me explain.

The way you approach voting may impact which candidate you choose to support. On October 19th the most personally (and collectively) rewarding ballots will be those cast by individuals who know who they’re choosing and why they’re choosing them, since those votes will be more likely to produce the sorts of outcomes that the voter is after.

But isn’t that what we do now? Well, often it isn’t. Frequently as voters, we make choices without knowing why we’ve made them. We might be able to tell a story about why we’ve chosen to vote for candidate A over candidate B, or why we prefer Bruce Springsteen to Paul Simon (isn’t it obvious?), but often these accounts are more rationalization than explanation.

In order to maximize our chances of making the sort of decision we’d make if we had all the relevant (and accurate) information in front of us, we first need to understand why we might fail to choose wisely. Then we can discuss how we might improve our chances of correcting that failure. While it’s exceedingly rare that any single vote “matters” in the sense that it is decisive in determining the outcome an election, on aggregate our collective votes matter a great deal. Indeed, the future of the country depends on them.

You’re not the voter you think you are. So what?

In the first piece I wrote for this series, I explained why you’re not the voter you think you are. We have this common conception of voters as rational choosers: logicbots who evaluate options, weigh the evidence, and make the choice that best suits our preferences. Undoubtedly, some of that goes on when choosing a candidate (or a pizza topping, for that matter). But you’re probably doing less of it than you think. And even when we do consciously reason our way towards a decision, our rational evaluations are often far from decisive.

A lot of other, non-rational, factors are at play when we make a decision, including intuition influenced by our upbringing, what we’ve seen on TV or heard in conversation, the way the issue is discussed, whether or not we’re hungry at the moment, the appearance or the voice pitch of the candidate (if we’re deciding how to vote), and even our mood at the time of deciding.

When it comes to choosing who to vote for, some of these influences might be relevant. I don’t want to dismiss intuition: it’s a powerful force that allows us to make rapid decisions that often serve us well. Anyone who has ever spent time travelling abroad, clubbing, or online dating knows exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes your gut knows best. But your vote choice should also include some sustained rational reflection so that you’re best able to determine by the criteria you’re going to make a decision. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be well positioned to work out which candidate (or leader or party) scores best on those considerations.

How to decide

Heuristics: As I argued in this piece on opinion formation, we sometimes lack “true” opinions. Instead of having pre-determined positions on certain issues, individuals’ opinions are generated on the fly when they’re asked about an issue. One of the ways this is done is through the use of heuristics, which are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that simplify decision making.

Heuristics can do a lot of good for us, but they can be risky. If, for example, your shortcut of choice is attractiveness–this is a thing–you may get the better looking candidate, but not the right candidate for your policy preferences. Now, if you care more about facial symmetry than social programs or tax rates, you’re golden. But I bet you don’t. So you want a heuristic that’s going to help you approximate where that candidate falls on the issues.

Say you’re deciding between two candidates in your riding. One is the candidate from The XX Party and the other is from the Talking Heads Party. Let’s also assume that you don’t want to vote strategically. Most people will use the political party as a heuristic and assume that the candidate’s positions will come close to those. But say we don’t want to just take the candidate or party at their word, and/or you don’t want to go through the platforms (who does?). Then what?

One way to proceed is to look at which civil society organisations are supporting the candidate or their party. Research by Arthur Lupiasuggests that lower-information voters can emulate better-informed voters by using trusted organizations as information proxies. So maybe you’re not sure whether you prefer The XX Party candidate or the Talking Heads Party candidate, but you do know that your trade local union or an interest group you trust has a preference. So when in doubt, you may be able to use such organisations as a guide.

The media: The media isn’t out to get you, so you can save your tinfoil for cooking dinner. Nor are they hopelessly in the bag for whichever party you oppose. Paul Wells recently argued that media bias is more perception than reality, and he did a good job dismantling some of the media bias argument.

Still, the media does have an effect on how you receive and process information. There’s even a name for it: media effects. But don’t worry, Chicken Little, the sky isn’t falling. The media can in fact be a key source of information and an important ally for helping you decide who to vote for since they contextualize and provide critical commentary on the political happenings of the day. In fact, contrary to some overblown characterizations of media effects, University of California, Berkeley, professor Gabriel Lenz argues that what seems like manipulation through media effects can be accounted for as individuals learning and changing their minds as they are exposed to new information.

But variety matters, since sometimes biases creep into media coverage (when it comes to interpersonal communication, this is unavoidable). So spend some time checking out several news outlets: print, television, online, radio. And don’t fall into the silo-trap, which is the sneaky snare that captures those who only bother to read or listen to what pops up on their Facebook newsfeed or what their hyper-partisan friends tell them to. This approach is a little more psychologically jarring–since being exposed to conflicting messages can generate cognitive dissonance. But remember, when you’re stuck, there are always good heuristics to turn to.

Parties and advertising: This is the “what to watch for” section. Frames. Narratives. Ads. Political parties are constantly trying to shape the message they deliver while also shaping the narratives or themes of the election at large. So, is the election about a “secure” or “strong” or “stable” economy? Or is it about “change.” Each of these frames will have an impact on how you evaluate your choices. If you’re the sitting governing party, you’ll probably, for instance, want to play down the change narrative. If you’re one of the opposition parties, however, you’ll want to hammer it hard. We’ve seen a lot of this during the current contest, which is not surprising.

Political ads will play into this battle over narrative formation. During this election we’ve seen a number of television ads, ranging from bizarre to nasty. (I won’t link to them here because they tend not to be misleading at the best of times). The effects of political ads on voters are mixed and still hotly debated. But one thing to keep in mind is that political ads tend to be sophisticated and manipulative tools. The same is true for mailouts–and we’ve seen some bizarre ones in this race, too (I won’t link to these, either).

Always be cautious when you come across them, and try not to buy wholesale whatever narrative is floated in them. Instead, go read the (highlights) of the party platforms, find trusted sources you can talk to, and read the news widely.

You: I can’t stand those hokey “believe in yourself” books, posters, and hucksters. But in some ways they’re on to something–at least if you’re willing to put in the work. Research by scholars Dennis Chong and James Druckman suggests that framing effects can be mitigated through competing messages (remember, vary your media consumption!). So don’t take the mail-outs you receive from candidates as Eternal Truth. Ditto the perspective of your boozy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner or your professor. It turns out that some of the effects of cognitive biases that I’ve been discussing in this series can be addressed by being critical, open-minded, and paying attention to the information you’re consuming. So keep that in mind.

Take some time to read widely and ask around about the candidates and the parties. Think about which issues matter most to you–rank them, even–and see where the parties and candidates stand on them. Then ask yourself how much you trust each candidate, party, and party leader to deliver on those promises. You may get an intuitive sense of whether you trust them or not–don’t entirely ignore this. Trust is partly an emotional relationship, so your gut may be telling you a lot when it comes to trusting. But make sure that you spend some time interrogating where that gut feeling comes from–has it been instilled by unreflective commitment to a party? Is it influenced by advertising?

You have chosen…wisely?

The truth is that it’s unlikely that any of us will ever be able to fully eliminate cognitive biases. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, as I’ve mentioned, by being made aware of these distortions, and by paying attention to them when making decisions, you can reduce their prevalence and effect. Well, most of them, anyway.

Remember that the only expert there is when it comes to your preferences is you. But if there’s one thing I’ve tried to highlight throughout this series, it’s that there’s a lot of information (some of it relevant, lots of it irrelevant) that goes into how you make a political decision, including who to vote for.

The big takeaway here is that you need to be vigilant if you want to make a decision that will reflect your values, preferences, and interests. You can learn to make decisions. In fact, you can even set things up to maximize the chance that you’ll choose wisely–we can do this as individuals and as a society. For more on this, see the further reading section below.

And check back next week for the final piece in the series. To wrap things up I’ll summarize how the election played out both inside and outside of our minds, and I’ll offer some suggestions about how we might think about running elections that are well-suited to encouraging good decision making by voters.

Further Reading

Joseph HeathEnlightenment 2.0
Richard Thaler and Cass SunsteinNudge
Gavin NewsomCitizenville
Barry SchwartzThe Paradox of Choice
Tali MendelbergThe Race Card